Sunday, October 30, 2022 | Trey Comstock
The normal patter of a funeral is top of mind for me right now. Last weekend, we buried my grandfather. He passed away in mid-September, but family calendars proved sufficiently complicated to the point that it took nearly a month for all the pieces to drop into place. My brother and his family had to fly into from DC. My cousin, Nicholas, had his graduation from a graduate program in England to attend. Sidney and Thomas had to get off of school. Still, we managed all of that, and so, we were gathered, for the second time in not all that long, for a funeral.
We did most of the normal things. We hung out and sorted through the house now emptied of occupants. We looked at pictures, picked through jewelry, moved furniture, and told stories. We finalized logistics for the funeral service itself. Here, our family is a little different than most. I essentially play both sides of the ball. I’m still a grieving family member, but as with weddings and baptism, I am also the clergy leading the service. The day of the funeral arrived. We went through the last-minute rush that always seems to proceed a funeral, getting dressed in formal attire, figuring out where all the pictures and personal effects would go, and successfully arriving on time (or at least in time) for the service. The service itself went well, or at least so I’m told. It always feels too short to me, and I worry that folks will feel that it’s too inconsequential. Afterwards, we went to a restaurant that my grandfather liked, stayed for two hours, and visited. The next day had a similar set of events but for the burial service instead. It’s the mundane routine of the formal grieving process that every family comes to know at some point.
Psalm 23 is, of course, as much a part of this routine as families coming together or one part of the family being vaguely late to the funeral. Every funeral home has it somewhere on its walls – in cursive text and an image of a lamb. I’ve seen it in so many funeral homes that I wonder if its part of some licensure requirement from whatever board certifies funeral homes? Is there a check box on some form for Psalm 23 in cursive font and lamb between a check box for plush carpet and clean embalming tools? It’s certainly a part of every funeral service that I ever do, in part because people expect it.
I also include it because the words are more than quiet comfort. They’re a powerful expression of how God works in our lives. If we think of Psalm 23 as what it is, a poem with three stanzas, then, the first stanza is about a shepherd. The second stanza is about the valley of the shadow of death, and the third stanzas is about a table in the presence of enemies. Now, the vast majority of images associated with Psalm 23 are of stanza one – lambs, strong shepherds, Jesus looking guys with shepherd’s crooks, green meadows, crystal streams, etc. We find comfort in the image of being protect and led to comfort by a strong a mighty shepherd. However, the second and third stanzas add an important element – the presence of suffering. God’s rod and staff do comfort you, but they do so in the valley of the shadow of death. God does provide a sumptuous table for you, but that table setting happens in the presence of enemies. The inherent power of Psalm 23 stems from its images of God there with you in hard times rather than just the Pollyannish images of livestock in verdant fields. Maybe, we don’t now need funeral homes covered with images of the valley of death and our enemies, but we shouldn’t lose sight of what’s happening in this Psalm just because we’ve become so accustomed to its presence.
The rest of the mundane funeral experience is Psalm 23 lived out. We gather, sort, plan, talk, worship, eat, tell stories, and connect with people with haven’t seen in ages as avenues for God to comfort us, to set a table before us, to lead us to stiller waters. Death may be what gather us, but God takes it from there. I suspect that this is why the service itself is short, but the lead to it and the meal afterwards are long. The words of the service need saying. They frame our grief and express spiritual closure, but we don’t want to linger there. That’s for the informal times of sorting, planning, and eating. There, we find peace in each other’s presence, in the stories and memories, and in the faces of long-lost friends. The process of a funeral contains its own underlying theology that Psalm 23 gives voice.
My maternal grandfather passed just a couple of days before Christmas in 2004. That side of my family doesn’t gather all together often. They’re spread out throughout the country and more separated by life and time. Being late December, more people were off from work and school, so a good chunk of them ended up coming down. I remember being sad. I hadn’t lost that many folks in my life yet, so the pain was not blunted by experience. Yet, sadness isn’t the predominant emotion or memory. I mostly remember launching fireworks on New Year’s Eve with my cousins from Illinois that I hardly ever see. 18-year-old me saw that as my grandfather’s final gift to us – a killer New Year’s party that we would have appreciated. The theologian in me knows it to be God’s rod and staff comforting my family as we walked through the valley of the shadow of death.